Interview with Iñigo Mujika
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Interview with Iñigo Mujika

I am glad to post the interview with Professor Iñigo Mujika whose work I’ve been following over the last couple of years. Recently, I have watched and enjoyed his presentation regarding high-intensity aerobic training in soccer at World Congress on Science and Football in Japan (see the review of the WCSF here). The video is posted at the end of the interview along with the link to Professor Mujika’ s website.  Enjoy the interview.

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Professor Iñigo Mujika

Mladen: Professor Mujika would you mind introducing yourself to the readers along with sharing some of your background and what you do currently? What do you do as a coach and what do you do as a researcher (field of interests)?

Iñigo: I am a sports physiologist from the Basque Country. I earned Ph.D.s in Biology of Muscular Exercise (University of Saint-Etienne, France) and Physical Activity and Sport Sciences (University of the Basque Country). I am also a Level III Swimming and Triathlon Coach.I was Senior Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport in 2003 and 2004. In 2005 I was the physiologist and trainer for the Euskaltel Euskadi professional cycling team and between 2006 and 2008 I was Head of Research and Development at Athletic Club Bilbao professional football club. I am now Director of Physiology and Training at USP Araba Sport Clinic, Physiology Consultant of the Spanish Swimming Federation, Associate Editor for the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, and Associate Professor at the University of the Basque Country.

In terms of coaching, I work with Basque elite triathletes Hektor and Eneko Llanos since 2002, and with Ainhoa Murua since 2004. Through USP Araba Sport Clinic, I also work with several recreational athletes who try hard to achieve their performance goals, no matter how humble these may be. 

My main research interests in the field of applied sport science include training methods and recovery from exercise, tapering, detraining and overtraining. I have performed extensive research on the physiological aspects associated with sports performance in professional cycling, swimming, running, rowing, tennis, football and water polo. I received research fellowships in Australia, France and South Africa, published over 80 articles in peer reviewed journals, two books and 13 book chapters, and have given over 170 lectures and communications in international conferences and meetings.

Mladen: Most of the training knowledge regarding the planning strategies (periodization) of training comes from the ’traditional’ individual sports and it is hard, or almost imposible to implement them into modern sport games context. What is you viewpoint on this problem of planning in sport games and how did you adress it in your own coaching?

Iñigo:  There are two main reasons for the focus on individual sports: first, in these sports there are moderate to large correlations between physiological capacities, basic training factors such as volume and intensity, and competitive performance; secondly, these factors are much easier to isolate and quantify in comparison with the multi-faceted nature of team sports’ physiological demands, training and performance.

I agree that it is difficult to have an individualized approach to training in a team sport setting, but it is by no means impossible. One of my main goals when I worked as Head of Research and Development at the youth academy of Athletic Club Bilbao was precisely trying to individualize the training programs so that each player’s full potential could be realized. This is not easy, but according with the principle of training individualization, this approach must be adopted. It is a matter of balancing the time and effort dedicated to preparing each player as an individual athlete, and the time and effort put towards integrating the skills and competencies of those athletes to best work as a team.

Mladen: For example, peaking in traditional individual sports demands short period of best performance at certain time of the year, while in team games competition calendar demands high and stable level of performance over long period of months and ofter short preparatory period. So, how can the concept of peaking be applied in such situations?

Iñigo: Indeed, team sport athletes usually need to perform at a high level week after week if they want to be in contention for the championship when it really counts.Two competitive situations come to mind with regards to tapering and peaking for team sports: pre-season training to face a league format competitive season in the best possible condition; and peaking for a major international tournament such as the Olympic Games or World Championships.

For a league format competition, the periodization and tapering principles usually adopted by individual sport athletes could also be applied during the preseason, to make sure all players start the season at or as close as possible to their peak fitness. How the players maintain a high fitness platform throughout the season is a different issue that depends on variables such as time between games, travel, competitiveness of the opposition, accumulated minutes of match play, recovery strategies, injury…

In the case of a major tournament, the same tapering and peaking principles apply. How to best prepare for such a tournament depends on how well the players have been able to cope with the demands of their domestic seasons, how quickly they can recover, the training load they can take (if any!) before it is again reduced to achieve a fitness peak for the tournament. Once the tournament starts, recovery between games becomes the key issue, rather than trying to achieve additional fitness gains.

There are reports of these approaches being successfully applied by high level sport teams, so there is no reason to think it can not be done. In fact, the published studies highlight the potential for team sports to gain a competitive advantage if they can develop effective strategies for tapering prior to competition.

Mladen: Speaking of the problems and complexities of the sport games, how is one about to minimize negative interferences of the concurrent training if there is such  thing? Research is showing both positive and negative effects of concurrent training (strength and endurance). Since sport games demand mixed development of speed/power and endurance capacities, how is one about to develop them the best? Is block periodization concept offering some solutions or source of more problems for sport games contexts?

Iñigo: Most team sports require well developed speed, acceleration, deceleration, power, endurance and agility, in addition to a combination of physical, physiological, psychological, technical, and tactical factors that contribute to performance. However, the speed, power or endurance requirements for team sports athletes are not as high as they would be in “pure” strength or “pure” endurance athletes. Therefore, I think potential interactions among training contents and workloads that could be non-compatible or restrictively compatible are not a real issue in the context of team sports. 

All the requirements of team sports need to be trained, of course, but we also need to keep in mind that a major stimulus for adaptation in sports with such a long competition period is competition itself. What I mean by this is that a mixed training approach may be ideal in the preseason, but during the competitive season recovery from matches becomes a much bigger issue than training in search of additional adaptations, particularly for those players accumulating the most minutes of match-play.

Mladen: Observation of high-level endurance athlete shows certain pattern of „polarized training“, where training workload is distributed in 80/20 manner in favor of low intensity training.  What can we learn from this and how can we apply this in sport games? Are we over-doing high-intensity training? Should we add more low intensity and threshold runs?

Iñigo: It is true that most successful endurance athletes show a polarized training pattern below and above the lactate or respiratory threshold intensity. But rather than thinking in terms of “this is what we should (or should not) do in team sports”, we should think in terms of what the best training approach is to improve each of the physiological, technical, tactical, psychological and even social qualities of team sport players. I do not agree with the widely extended philosophy according to which all training contents should imitate the game. I see that as a very restrictive training approach.

I believe we should analyze the game demands in depth, then consider all the options and strategies available to us for improving the qualities players need to best meet those demands. If a player is limited by a lack of speed, what are the tools we can use to make him faster? If limited by his aerobic qualities, why shouldn’t we use the principles of endurance training? If she lacks strength and power, use the most effective and time-efficient methods to make her stronger and more powerful. Of course we also need to integrate the training of specific qualities into the team sport context, to make the individual athlete a better player, and the group of players a better team.

Mladen: What is your opinion on cross-training, for example cycling? Can we achieve peripheral/central adaptations using low/high intensity training while saving joints during the in-season or with injured players?

Iñigo: Cross-training, defined here as the participation in an alternative training mode exclusive to the one normally used, could indeed be a useful means to avoid or limit detraining during the off-season, avoid overuse injuries or during recovery from a sport-specific injury. The limited body of data available in the literature on the effects of cross-training as opposed to training cessation suggests that whereas moderately trained individuals may maintain fitness and delay deconditioning by performing dissimilar training modes, similar-mode cross-training would be necessarily in more highly trained individuals. What this means is that an elite player needs to carry out cross-training exercises that have similar physiological and biomechanical requirements to those of their sport for those exercises to be effective. But given that most team sports have a quite wide range of physiological and biomechanical requirements, almost any alternative sport or physical exercise should provide some degree of benefit on retaining training-induced adaptations. 

These recommendations, however, do not take into account the more than likely psychological benefits of performing alternative sports and recreational physical activities that take the pressure of competition or the stress of being injured away from players’ minds.

Mladen: There is more and more emphasis on small-sided games as a form of conditioning in sport games. Can such a practice yield more or less benefits if we take into consideration that more and more teams are solely relying on such philosophy and neglecting ’without the ball’ conditioning? 

Iñigo: This is exactly what I was talking about when I said that I do not think all training contents should imitate the game. Small-sided games are just another tool that coaches can use to make their players better. There may be some player qualities and training goals that are best achieved through small-sided games, but I think they are by no means the only training option a coach should consider.

Mladen: How can one implement large group aerobic power conditioning based on individual characteristics? What do you use as a criterion for individualization (what parameter and how do you test it) and do you base conditioning on the position played or the individual characteristics and why? Some coaches group their players based on the position played, and some group them on individual characteristics. What are the pro’s and con’s of each approach and can/should they be combined and how?

Iñigo: Within a team there are always some players who share very similar endurance qualities, so even though we talk about individualized training, we can always group players with similar values so that individualization does not become impossible to put in place. Most often, we can divide an entire football squad in three to five groups for an aerobic power session, and most players would be getting the right training stimulus nonetheless.

How we determine individual training intensities depends on what tests we use and what equipment we have access to. For most team sports, field tests such as the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test, the Shuttle Run Test or the University of Montréal Track Test should help us to determine effective and time-efficient aerobic conditioning training programs. 

My view is that we need to balance player’s individual characteristics, the demands of the position he or she plays in and training time available. A football goal keeper could of course improve his aerobic power through specific training, but beyond a given level, we have to ask ourselves whether that type of training is going to make him a better player and whether that is the best possible use of his training time.

Mladen: What do you think about the monitoring of the training effects (acute, immediate) as a form of feedback to adjust the training plan/program (medical, testing/performance, subjective/questionnaires, GPS/HR)? 

Iñigo: I think the more reliable information we can gather to assess training loads and evaluate training responses and adaptations, the more effective training can be. But only as long as we can deal with that information in a time-efficient manner and make sense of it. I always avoid collecting data unless I have the means to analyze it fast enough and interpret it in such a way that it becomes understandable and useful for the coaches. Otherwise, it is a waste of time and resources, and it undermines the credibility of a sport scientist. In my view, the coaching of athletes to prepare for competition will never be a total science and will always remain an art.

Mladen: And the last question – RSA (Repeated Sprint Ability). There is more and more research on this, but I see the trend of coaches neglecting true power/speed and strength work in favor of doing more RSA. 

Iñigo: My response to this question would be very similar to what I just said regarding small-sided games. Repeated-sprint ability is one of the various demands of team sport performance, but neglecting the other demands is of course a mistake. Repeated-sprint ability needs to be trained, and using RSA as a training method could have a big impact on various aspects important for team sport performance, but this is just another method to add to our training arsenal. 

Mladen: Thank you so much for this interview professor Mujika. Hopefully you will be willing to share more of your insights with us in the near future. Good luck with all your work and keep us updated. Thank you! 

For more info please visit Professor Iñigo Mujika website.

I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grow up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »
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